Drive-thrus are all tightened. It can be difficult to fix them

“Just a few seconds can be a complete or a breakthrough in terms of where consumers decide to order from,” said Amanda Topper, a research director at research firm Mintel. The data was obtained from SeeLevelHX, which tracks drive-throughs at about 1,500 US restaurants across 10 major chains between July 5 and August 6.

Driving faster can be “a competitive advantage,” says Topper, while long lines may discourage customers from stopping. Most Americans eat at a fast food restaurant use drive-thru, she notes – and the option is becoming even more popular during the pandemic, as many customers feel safer in their cars than in restaurants.

So far, the routine has stuck. A Technomic consumer survey found that about 52% of quick-serve restaurant orders were placed in swaths in August 2021, compared with about 42% in January 2020.

In the highly competitive fast food market, increased demand through any channel is a win. Restaurants don’t want to lose ground by giving up any potential sales, but they also can’t overwhelm their systems and risk losing customers.

To solve that problem, fast food chains are pursuing many solutions, many of which are more: more lanes, more pick-up options and more technology.

How the drive-thrus got bogged down

Restaurant personnel is the main cause of drive-through delay. “Labour is at the heart of many of the major challenges that restaurants… are facing today,” said David Henkes, senior principal at Technomic.
Restaurants and bars were short of 800,000 jobs in October compared to February 2020, before the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. Employees have left in droves, with a dropout rate for accommodation and food services reaching 6.6% in September, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics — more than double the overall 3% average.

And the pandemic’s push to drive-through, delivery and pickup has created a cycle: With workers scrambling to fill those unavailable orders, customers outside in restaurants can become frustrated – and switch to driving instead.

“You’re sitting there waiting in line, and while all the drive-in orders are filling, the takeout orders are filling,” says Henkes. Until labor conditions ease, restaurants are “redirecting their resources to where they will be most productive. For many quick-service restaurants, that’s driving force.”

Some restaurants with multiple employees are choosing to close their dining rooms altogether. But even as they add more employees to their driver staff, that channel will be under enormous pressure.

Drive in line at a Wendy's restaurant in Pinole, California, on Monday, August 9, 2021.
In Wendy’s (WEN)For example, staffing challenges mean that “on average we had more dining rooms closed in the third quarter than in the second quarter,” CEO Todd Penegor said on a recent analyst call. . “One of the big keys for us is opening up our dining rooms to really help take the pressure off of driving and support our digital business going forward. .”

Meanwhile, there was even a challenge the restaurant staff managed to maintain. Uncertainty in the industry means increased revenue, which means fewer experienced workers. “If you have an employee who has been with you for a year, they are much more productive… than the person you hired three weeks ago,” said Peter Saleh, restaurant analyst at BTIG.

Larger orders, another pandemic trend, only exacerbate the situation, Saleh noted. Some restaurant chains say that while traffic may have slowed during the crisis, the average check size has increased. That’s partly due to rising prices, but also because people have placed larger orders for families or groups to eat together at home.

Pre-order, dual lane and artificial intelligence

It is unclear when, or even if, the workforce for restaurants will increase. So restaurants are turning to other solutions.

Earlier this week, KFC announced a drive-through alternative called Fast delivery. Customers pre-order through the KFC app or website, drive to a KFC location and park in a designated spot, then walk into the restaurant to pick up food from a shelf near the check-in counter. In its announcement, KFC encourages customers to choose to pick up trucks instead of driving across the street.
KFC is introducing Express Pick-up at participating US locations.
This is not a new idea in a time of pandemic: Ordinary fast sequences such as Sweetgreen and Chipotle (CMG) features a characteristic long pickup shelf. Last year, McDonald’s said it was highway test and dedicated pick-up points for customers who have ordered digitally. Burger King also revealed New restaurant design last year with analog spots and order window.
Pre-ordering not only relieves pressure from the driver’s window, but also encourages people to order through an app – a key way for fast food chains Build loyalty with rewards and exclusive offers, and learn more about their customers.

However, fast food has always been about convenience, so taking it a step further may not appeal to all diners. So some thread is relying on the drive.

Burger King is build prototypes with more driving lanes. McDonald’s (MCD) and others are experiment with automatic voice technology can take customer orders.

CEO Chris Kempczinski told analysts during an October call that McDonald’s has been testing automated ordering at some of its US stores. These efforts, he said, “have shown significant benefits to customers and the crew experience.” McDonald’s driving times in major markets have shortened by an average of 30 seconds over the past two years, according to the company.

In other drive-through initiatives, last year International restaurant brand (QSR) – the company that owns Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons – announced it would roll out digital menu screens with contactless payments by mid-2022. And Wendy’s (WEN) recently announced a partnership with Google (GOOG) to give it access to AI and other technology that could help improve drive-thru ordering.


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